WHAT’S TWICE AS BAD AS THE GREAT DEPRESSION? THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN THE 1930s

This last Saturday, twenty Miami-Dade public school teachers enrolled in my American history seminar, “The Great Depression, New Deal, and the ‘Good War,’” came to the Wolfsonian’s rare book and special collections library museum for a presentation of items from that period.

The topic under consideration for that particular class section was how African-Americans were affected by the economic hardship and if and how the Roosevelt Administration’s programs helped them. Jim Crow, segregation, and rampant racism were the norm in the 1930s and in a time when 25% of American bread-earners were out of work, the unemployment rate for African-Americans skyrocketed to 50% fueled by racist jargon and slogans such as “No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job,” and “Niggers back to the cotton fields. City jobs are for white men.”

Before delving into the specifics of that topic, the class had the opportunity to look over a wide variety of visual and literary primary resource materials on the subject in general. The display included items representing the whole “alphabet soup” of New Deal remedies for the depression, including things about the NRA (National Recovery Administration), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), CWA  (Civil Works Administration), PWA (Public Works Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Works Progress Administration), FWP (Federal Writers’ Project), FTP (Federal Theatre Project), etc. In addition to having the chance to examine and reflect on works produced by the Administration in support of its programs, there were a variety of other publications on the table criticizing the same from the Left and the Right.

GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

Many of the students were drawn to the poster-sized lithographs designed by Hugo Gellert, a Hungarian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen and unapologetic promoter of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). More than any other artist in the library collection, Gellert’s highly politicized artwork provides the most scathing critique of Capitalism which he blamed for the economic and social crisis. In one illustration called “Midgets,” Gellert suggests that J. P. Morgan and other capitalist plutocrats owned Congress.

Compare, for example, photographer Lewis Hine’s dynamic image of a construction worker helping to construct New York City’s iconic skyscrapers with Gellert’s lithographic illustration of a downcast man suspended in space, titled “Useless.”

Early New Deal programs (such as the NRA and AAA) intended to deal with the crisis in industry and agriculture were lambasted in his illustrations as ineffective and even retrogressive. Certainly such criticisms hit a responsive chord even among non-radicals, especially when in a time of widespread hunger and want, the AAA in 1933 tried to fix the problem of “overproduction” by having farmers slaughter six million “surplus” pigs in September (their meat condemned as waste!); plough-under cotton crops in October; and subsidize large landowners to let their lands lie fallow.

In spite of New Deal assurances that the Administration was concerned with helping the poorest of farmers, as Comrade Gellert’s propagandistic art suggested, the latter subsidies disproportionately benefited large farming interests at the expense of marginal tenant farmers and sharecroppers, hundreds of thousands of whom were driven off the land.

While the CPUSA’s early attempts to win over African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers did not enjoy much success—largely owing to Black religious conservatism and successful intimidation efforts on the part of Southern landowners—the Communists struggled to forge integrated unions of agricultural workers in the South and employed their legal arm (the International Labor Defense, or ILD) to fight in the courts on behalf of labor prisoners. In 1931, the Party learned that nine African-American youths falsely accused of raping two white girls had been condemned to death after a farcical trial in Scottsboro, Alabama. The ILD seized upon the opportunity to demand a retrial and to fight for justice all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Party’s vociferous campaign to free the “Scottsboro Boys,” however, was not confined to courtroom drama; its tactics also included organizing integrated marches through Harlem and mass demonstrations in major cities across the globe.

The Party’s efforts to broadcast to the world the injustices in this case certainly helped them embarrass the Capitalists and gain a hearing in Harlem. It also won the repute of being one of the most progressive and aggressive defenders of the rights of African-Americans as they attempted to recruit African-Americans by championing the cause of civil rights. The CPUSA was the first American political party to include an African-American as a vice-presidential candidate.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Of course, the CPUSA was not alone in fighting for the rights of African-Americans in the 1930s. The NAACP had tried to wrestle the Scottsboro case away from the Communists and also worked hard to try to secure passage of a federal anti-lynching law. Ultimately, however, they failed on both accounts.

One of the greatest sources of support for African-Americans came from the White House in the spirited and tireless activism of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. While the President was personally very supportive of civil rights, publicly and politically the New Yorker had to be careful not to alienate the Southern conservative “Dixiecrat” wing of his Party. His private letters and correspondence indicate that he actually believed in and backed his headstrong wife’s morally-courageous stances, even as he publicly distanced himself from her “crusades.”

Sadly, FDR failed to throw his support behind the anti-lynching bill in Congress, believing that it would not pass and fearing that such a hot sectionalist issue might jeopardize his political future.

In other instances, however, FDR’s record on civil rights was more inspiring. As Blacks made up 10% of the population, Roosevelt insisted that an equal portion of CCC jobs be reserved for African-American youths.

But even while some of the Northern and Western camps (if not barracks) were integrated, strict segregation remained the norm in Southern camps. Similarly, 10% percent of federal relief program jobs were reserved for African-Americans and required equal pay regardless of race, although such mandates were hard to and hardly enforced at the local level in the Southern states.

The Federal Writers’ Project also did much to elevate the status of African-Americans by publishing books about their contributions to American society and folk culture.

Under the direction of the progressive liberal Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre Project not only enforced equal pay provisions, but also terminated racist employees, and insisted on integrated audiences. Such policies provoked the ire of many powerful Southern segregationists, including Martin Dies, Democratic Representative of Texas’ second district in Congress. As the most influential member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dies begin calling hostile witnesses in his public investigation of supposed Communist infiltration of the Federal Theatre Project.

By the summer of 1938, Roosevelt’s progressive racial policies has so embittered many Southerners and caused such defections in the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, that the president vented his frustrations in a radio address on June 24, 1938.  In it, he chastised the Seventy-Fifth Congress, claiming that “Never before have we had so many Copperheads among us — and you will remember that it was the Copperheads who, in the days of the Civil War, the War between the States, tried their best to make President Lincoln and his Congress give up the fight in the middle of the fight, to let the Nation remain split in two and return to peace—yes, peace at any price.” The address only served to further inflame growing sectionalist sentiment and division, and the New Dealer only managed to win an unprecedented third term by focusing on foreign policy as Europe again moved towards war.

In reality, though neither Franklin nor Eleanor gave up the struggle for human rights. FDR invited the “Brown Bomber,” boxer Joe Louis to the White House before his 1938 rematch against Hitler’s “Teutonic” champion, Max Schmeling, telling him that “we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” That encouragement inspired Louis in the ring, where he knocked Schmeling to the canvas three times before winning the celebrated bout in just over two minutes.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

While it took the threats of a planned protest march on Washington D.C. in 1941 to force the President to issue Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act) barring discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, Eleanor continued to push for fair treatment throughout the war years. She was instrumental, for example, in insisting that the African-American airmen training at Tuskegee were given the opportunity to prove their worth as warriors in the war.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

~ by "The Chief" on September 19, 2012.

One Response to “WHAT’S TWICE AS BAD AS THE GREAT DEPRESSION? THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN THE 1930s”

  1. Thanks, important historic point of view to recognize the present fight again the racism to the president of U.S.A. from the Republicans. Great Blog, well done!

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